Introduction to Scotch Whisky

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Scotch whisky, which is frequently referred to as just Scotch, is a grain or malt whiskey that is made in Scotland.  It must be made according to specific rules & regulations.  Originally all Scotch whisky was made out of malted barley.  During the late 18th century, commercial distilleries started to introduce whiskey that was made from rye and wheat.  There are five distinct categories of Scotch whisky: single grain, single malt, blended malt, blended grain and blended Scotch whisky.

Scotch whisky is required to be aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels.  Any statement of age that appears on a Scotch bottle that is expressed in numerical terms, must be a reflection of the youngest whisky’s age that is used for producing the spirit.  A whiskey that has an age statement is referred to as a guaranteed-age whiskey.

Labeling

The label for Scotch whiskey is comprised of several different elements indicating aspects of ownership, bottling, age and production.  Some of the elements are regulated, while others are a reflection of marketing and tradition.  Consumers and journalists often debate how the term “whisky” is spelled.  Canadian, Australian and Scottish whiskies use the spelling “whisky,” while “whiskey” is used for Irish whiskies.  American and other whisky styles have various spellings.

Scotch Bottles

The grain whiskies or malts used are always declared on the label.  Single malt refers to Scotch whisky produced entirely at one distillery using one malt.  Blended malt refers to single malt whisky that comes from more than one distillery and then blended inside the bottle.  The label also features the brand name.  Usually the name is the same as what the distillery is called.  There could also be a bottler name listed on the label that is independent from the distillery.  Scotch whisky is not only required to be distilled in Scotland, it also must be bottled and labeled in the country as well.

On the label alcohol strength is listed as “Alcohol By Volume.”  It may also sometimes be referred to as just “Vol.”   Bottled whisky typically run from 40% to 46% ABV.  When whisky first emerges out of the cask, it is considerably stronger- normally in the range of 60-63% ABV.  Then water is added in order to create the bottling strength that is desired.  The whiskey can be labeled cask strength if it isn’t diluted prior to being bottled.

The age of the whisky might be listed on the label to provide a guarantee of what the youngest whisky used was.  Any age statement that appears on the label that is in number format must be a reflection of the youngest whisky’s age that was used for producing the product.  Any whisky that provides an age statement is referred to as guaranteed age whisky.  When there is no age statement, by law the whisky can be three years or older.  The label may also contain a bottling date or distillation date.  Once bottled, whisky doesn’t mature.  Therefore if there isn’t any age statement provided, the whisky’s age can be calculated if both the bottle dating and distillation date are provided.

Types

There are two main kinds of Scotch whisky.  All of the blends get made from these two types.

  • Single malt refers to Scotch whisky that is produced only from malted barley and water in pot stills by batch distillation at one distillery.
  • Single grain refers to Scotch whisky that uses malted barley and water to distill the whisky at one distillery.  However, other whole grains as well as unmalted or malted cereals may also be used.  “Single grain” doesn’t refer to one kind of grain being used for producing the whisky.  Instead, the adjective “single” is referring only to using one distillery.

Scotch Whisky 1

Any spirit qualifying as a blended or single malt Scotch whisky is excluded from the single grain Scotch whisky definition.  The reason a blended Scotch whisky is excluded is so that blended types of Scotch whisky that are produced from single grain and single malt at the one distillery don’t qualify as well as a single grain Scotch whisky.

There are three different kinds of Scotch whisky blends:

  • Blended grain is a blend of at least two single grain Scotch whiskies that come from different distilleries.
  • Blended malt is a blend of at least two single match Scotch that come from different distilleries to produce the blend.
  • Blended Scotch whisky is a blend of at least one single malt Scotch whisky with at least one single grain Scotch whisky.

Most of the grain whiskey that is produced in Scotland is used for making blended Scotch.  A 60-85% grain whisky represents an average blended whiskey.  There are higher-quality grain whiskies from single distilleries that are bottled in the form of single grain whiskey.

Among the least common kinds of Scotch is blended malt whiskey.  This refers to single malts that are blended from multiple distilleries.  Blended malts only contain malt whiskies.  There are no grain whiskies.  Usually they are also distinguished from other kinds of whisky by omission of the word ‘single’ before on the word ‘malt’ on the label.  There is also no distillery name mentioned.  The vat’s age is the youngest of all original ingredients.  Monkey Shoulder and Johnnie Walker Green Label are both blended malt whiskies.

Approximately 90% of whisky that is produced in Scotland is blended Scotch whisky.  Blended Scotch whiskies have both grain and malt whiskey in them.  Initially they were created to be a single malt whiskey alternative because some consider the single malt to be too harsh.  Various grain and malt whiskies are combined in order to produce a brand style that is consistent.

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